:al Series Vol. I. No. I.
General Series Vol. 1. No. I.
NIVERSITY OF tyOTRE DAME
THE MICHIGAN ESSAY
""MICHIGAN'S FIRST NEWSPAPER
PAUL J. FOIK, C. S. C, Ph. D.
THE UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME,
Notre Dame, Ind.
THE MICHIGAN ESSAY
BY THE REV. PAUL FOIK, C, S. C., PH. D.
Librarian of the University of Notre Dame.
The earliest effort in Catholic pioneer journalism
began in the first decade of the nineteenth century
when, in 1809, Rev. Father Gabriel Richard of Detroit
made possible the publication of the Michigan Essay
or Impartial Observer. If we examine the conditions in
the Northwest at this time, we see the absolute
need of a newspaper in the vast and sparsely
settled territory of Michigan. Its people were, for
the most part, French, unacquainted with the English
tongue, and many of them rude and uninstructed even
in their own language.*
Those who know the history of this territory in
those early days will remember also the activities of
Father Richard as an educator, f The establishment of
this periodical was part of his comprehensive scheme
for the enlightenment of the people of his own flock
and of the territory at large. As an initial step in such
* Contributions to American Educational History edited
by Herbert B. Adams. History of Higher Education in Michigan
Serial No. n by Andrew C. McLaughlin, Government Pub-
lication, Bureau of Education, whole No. 174, Circular of
Information No. 4, Washington Government Printing Office,
1891, p. ii.
t See Article by Rev. J. J. O'Brien in the Historical Records
and Studies of the United States Catholic Historical Society
of New York. Vol. V. Part I. Nov. 1907, pp. 77-94.
See also Metropolitan Catholic Almanac 1855 pp. 43-57
See also annals of the Propagation of the Faith 1800 to 1830-
4 , THE MICHIGAN ESSAY
a plan for the uplifting of his fellow-citizens, the news-
paper was perhaps the best means that he could have
We may regard this scheme of Father Richard
as one of the determining causes which gave o this
country its first Catholic periodical. Another considera-
tion which hastened its establishment was the loss
occasioned by a disastrous fire that swept Detroit in
1805. Hardly a building .was saved from the fury of
this great conflagration. Father Richard and his
flock were compelled to seek temporary quarters until
he could devise some means towards the rebuilding
of St. Anne's Church. With this object in view, he
journeyed to Baltimore in 1808, and it was on this
occasion that he purchased a printing press and a
font of type. These he brought overland to Detroit
and set up at Spring Wells in the house of Jacques
Many persons have claimed for this press the
honor of being the first one to be set up throughout
the Northwest, but it is even questionable whether
it was the first in operation in Detroit itself; for there
were proclamations issued to the people of this vicinity
by Lieutenant Governor Hamilton as early as the
year 1777. These were dated from Detroit showing,
presumably, that they were printed there. Strange to say,
these were the only printed documents that were, over
a long stretch of years, credited to Detroit as the place
of issue. We may reasonably conclude from this that
the Lieutenant-Governor's proclamation was dated
from Detroit but printed elsewhere. Another press
was owned by Alexander and William Macomb who
received it from England in 1785; but there is no
* Historical Records and Studies of the United States
Cath. Hist. Soc. Vol. V., Part i, p. 85.
THE MICHIGAN ESSAY 5
evidence that it was ever put in operation.* It has
been further asserted . that the Michigan Essay was
the first paper printed in the Northwest. Various news-
papers were already printed in the Territory before 1800.
Cincinnati and Chillicothe early boasted of this means
of enlightenment. It is known that Freeman and Son
started a newspaper in 1795. Chillicothe established
two papers about the same period. Before the close
of the century at least thirteen were being printed in
the Northwest, f That the Essay was the first periodical
edited in that part known as Michigan is a well es-
tablished fact. |
Many misstatements have also been made regard-
ing its real publisher and editor, j The regular collec-
tion and dispatch of news in those days presupposed
a widespread interest in public affairs. This qualifica-
tion Father Richard possessed to a remarkable degree,
as is well attested by every local historian of eminence;!
but his religious duties and the extent of his missionary
* American Catholic News, New York, Sept. lyth, 1891,
p. 5. Report of Don C. Henderson's Speech of the Allegan
Journal before the West Michigan Press Association held at
Kalamazoo. Also Michigan Historical and Pioneer Collection
Vol. 13, p. 394 and p. 489. Also the Detroit Free Press May
30th, 1888. Also Historical Records and Studies of U. S. Cath.
Hist. Soc. of N. Y. cited above, p. 86.
f Circular of Information No. 4. Bureau of Education
Serial No. n. p. 11 et seq., full reference cited above. Also the
History of Printing in America by Isaiah Thomas, Worcester, 1 8 10.
J Michigan Historical and Pioneer Collection Vol. 13, p .394.
j Most reliable account is Silas Farmer's History of Detroit
and Michigan vol. I. pp. 670-671. The author of this work
went to Worcester and sought out in the Thomas Library
this periodical; he had a photograph made of each sheet of
the first and only issue of this paper.
See Cooley's "Michigan," Houghton, Mifflin & Co.,
New York, pp. 307-311. See also Rev. J. J. O'Brien's Article
jn Historical Records & Studies, etc. cited above.
6 THE MICHIGAN ESSAY
labors did not enable him to give his time to the pub-
lishing and editing of this paper. He therefore placed
the publication of the Essay in 'the hands of a capable
layman, who could devote his time exclusively to the
work, while the priest himself acted merely as super-
visor.* That Father Richard was neither the pub-
lisher nor the editor of the Michigan Essay is found by
an examination of the first issue of that periodical.
Probably he contributed to the French portion, but it
is distinctly stated on the first page that the paper was
printed and published by James M. Miller.
A brief retrospect of the period preceding the
establishment of The Michigan Essay will disclose many
facts of interest, touching the history of journalism.
Various methods have from time to time been used
for the circulation of news, but we can claim for Detroit
and its vicinity the most primitive stage of develop-
ment, the ''spoken newspaper." Such indeed was the
means that Father Richard first used to arouse interest
among the people, which was afterwards to ripen
into a more active and intelligent participation in the
affairs of government. He appointed a town-crier,
whose duty it was to publish, every Sunday, from the
doors of St. Anne's, news items and matters of general
concern to the waiting congregation and to the public
at large. We are told that not infrequently, the crier
announced even auction sales, horse races, and the date
of the next fox-hunt. Sometimes notices were written
* History of Detroit and Michigan by Silas Farmer.
Catholic Periodicals published in U. S. A. Supplement to a list
printed in Vol. 4 of the Records of Cath. Hist. Soc. of Phila.
see p. 6.
Campbell, History of Michigan. Tenbrook, American
State Universities. Michigan Pioneer & Historical Collection
Vol. 13 p. 394.
THE MICHIGAN ESSAY 7
and posted in some convenient place near the church.
For a while the duties of the crier were fulfilled by
Theophilus Mettz,* the sacristan of St. Anne's. Regu-
larly, after mass on Sundays, he stationed himself on
the steps of the Church, within view of all and there
made such announcements as the eager people were
anxious to hear.f
Though the town-crier performed his duties to
the satisfaction of all, his labors, nevertheless, were
confined within narrow limits. In the first place, matters
of local interest were his chief concern. When, per-
chance, he did have news from afar it rarely circulated
beyond the vicinity of Detroit. Consequently the
arrival of Father Richard's press in the territory was
hailed with great enthusiasm.
As regards the paper about which we are chiefly
concerned the expectations of its promoters soon came
to naught. The Michigan Essay or Impartial Observer
began its career on August 31, 1809. It was the in-
tention of the publisher that the paper should appear
every Thursday.! Exactly how many issues did appear
we do not know. Five copies of the first publication
are all that have been discovered up to the present
* Theophilus Mettez afterwards became printer and pub-
lisher. See Records & Studies of the Cath. Hist. Soc. of N. Y.
t History of Higher Education in Michigan by Andrew C.
McLaughlin cited above p. 1 1 .
Also Records & Stduies of U. S. Cath. Hist. Soc. of N Y.
t List of Catholic Periodicals published in U. S. Supple-
mentary list. Reprint from the Records of American Cath.
Hist. Soc. of Phila. by Rev. Thomas Cooke Middleton. See
also Amer. Cath. News, N. Y. Sept. 27, 1891, p. 5. Speech
of Don C. Henderson cited above.
8 THE MICHIGAN ESSAY
time. Some have concluded from this that the peri-
odical immediately ceased to appear.*
This initial number of The Essay has a history
peculiarly its own. Of the copies still known to exist,
one was possessed for a short time by a friend of the
publisher, whose home was in Utica, N. Y. Perhaps
it had been sent by Mr. Miller himself to his home town;
for we know that prior to 1809 he had resided there.
From Utica, it was sent to Isaiah Thomas, of Worcester,
who was writing a history of printing in America.
The following note, written in the margin of the first
pa,ge of the periodical, suggests at least that there
might have been more than one issue:
UTICA, N. Y., Aug. 31, 1810.
I send you this paper published by a friend of mine
to insert in your 'History of Printing.' If he sees your
advertisement he will send you more, perhaps, of later
We have no conclusive evidence that more than
one number was issued. f Brown's Campaign of the
Western Army incidentally mentions that "only three
numbers were issued," but this must not be regarded
as an authentic statement, since the author seems
merely to indicate that the paper had a very brief
After the discovery of the copy already described
three others were found in the city of Detroit. One of
these numbers, held for over fifty years by Thomas
* History of Detroit and Michigan by Silas Farmer, Vol.
I, pp. 670-671. See also Records and Studies of Cath. Hist.
Soc. of N. Y. cited above.
t The Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collection says
that eight or nine copies appeared but no other testimony is
furnished to support this claim. It is accompanied with some
misstatement of facts.
THE MICHIGAN ESSAY 9
Lee, of Leeville, recently came into the possession of
H. E. Baker of the Detroit Tribune. Another copy was
saved from oblivion by William Michell who discovered
it among some old papers. A third copy of Vol. i, No. i.
is at present in the Detroit Public Library. There was
still another number of this issue in the old Detroit
Museum. We may suppose that this remaining copy
is still in existence although we have no accurate in-
formation concerning it.
When the Michigan Essay or Impartial Observer
was introduced to the people it was a four page paper,
nine and one-quarter inches by sixteen inches in size.
The statement, so frequently repeated that the paper
was printed mostly in French is unreliable. That the
periodical was called the " Essai du Michigan" is also
without foundation. An examination of the first number
reveals the fact that there were only one and a half
columns in French, and that the remainder of the
paper as well as the title were in English.*
There is nothing in the first issue to indicate that
the Essay was to be the mouth-piece of the Catholics
of Michigan. Its columns were open to any gentle-
man of talent, provided he abstained from con-
troversy. We can reasonably suppose, however, that
it was the intention of the founder to reflect, in some
measure at least, the opinion of the Catholic people
in the territory. The most we can claim for the Essay,
then, is that it was a semi-Catholic periodical. This
conclusion is based principally upon the circumstances
attending its establishment. Its chief purpose was
to inform, to entertain and to educate. Articles from
* History of Detroit and Michigan by Silas Farmer cited
above. Also Records and Studies of the U. S. Cath. Hist. Soc.
of N. Y. cited above.
10 f THE MICHIGAN ESSAY
various newspapers, foreign and domestic, furnished
the bulk of the news section. The items of foreign
interest were taken mainly from the London Morning
Chronicle and the Liverpool Aurora; and such infor-
mation appeared four or five months after the events
occurred. Incidents printed four, or five weeks before
in the New York Spectator, the Pittsburg Commonwealth,
and the Boston Mirror were news for the Essay. Strange
to say there was not one item of local interest in the
first issue of sixteen columns ; and but one short notice
that bears somewhat of the nature of an editorial in
which the publisher makes clear that he intends to
assume an impartial attitude in political affairs, and
invites contributions for his newspaper from all gentle-
men of talent.
It must have been the intention of the publisher
to print from time to time the original verse or selections
from the English poets, with the view, no doubt, of
entertaining readers, and at the same time creating
in them a taste for good literature. At any rate, we
see in this first issue excepts from Young's Night
Thoughts entitled Futurity; also two other poem<
on Evening and Happiness. There were also prose^
on Politeness, Early Rising, and Husbandry. A very
peculiar arrangement was made about subscription
rates. One would naturally expect that city subscribers
on account of their proximity to the office would receive
the paper cheaper than outsiders. On the contrary,
the people of Detroit were asked to pay five dollars
a year ; residents of Upper Canada and Michigan
four and a half dollars; while the more distant sub-
scribers could receive it for four dollars. Advertising
space did not exceed one dollar and fifty cents a
square for the first three insertions and twenty-five
THE MICHIGAN KSSAY II
cents a square for each subsequent one.* Only one
advertisement appeared in the first issue, that "of St.
Anne's School. The publisher 'also gives notice that he
is about to print several works; among others he
mentions ' ' Nine Days Devotion to the Sacred Heart
of Jesus." t
This periodical like a frail and delicate morning-
glory lifted up its ambitious head to the rising light of
progress but withered away in the noon-day sun of
one hot August day. Why did this venture into the
field of journalism fail so prematurely? It has been
said that the Essay perished on account of insufficient
patronage. J Perhaps if Father Richard could have
given to this work his personal attention this project
would have had a measure of success. Perhaps also if
the subscription price was more reasonable the paper,
small as it was, would have found many patrons. We
know that journals of later and better times and of
more advantageous circumstances barely subsisted, and
some even suspended publication for a while, because
they were not making expenses.
Though the Essay was so early doomed to failure,
its press continued in service for a number of years.
Several publications of a religious and of an educational
character were printed. Many books of devotion,
tracts, prayer-books and catechisms in the Indian
dialect and in the French, but set up in English type,
were published for Father Richard's missions throughout
* History of Detroit and Michigan by Silas Farmer, cited
above. See also Records and Studies of the U. S. Cath. Hist.
Soc. cited above.
f American Catholic Quarterly, Phila. 1893 Vol. 18, p.
98. See also Records and Studies of U. S. Cath. Hist. Soc*
| Michigan Historical and Pioneer Collection Vol. VI.
12 THE) MICHIGAN ESSAY
the territory.* Even the laws and the official documents
of the Territory were run off on this small hand-press,
and a biographer of good Father Richard states that
"he always made sure that this work was properly
executed."! For a while the type-setting was done
by Mr. A Coxshaw, who came west in iSoQ.J General
Brock's proclamation during the War of 1812 was
printed by this press. After the war many newspapers
sprang into existence in Michigan, but the one that
still remains the proud boast of the people is that
pioneer of them all, the Michigan Essay or Impartial
* Ibid. Vol. XIII. Also Records and Studies of the U, S.
Cath. Hist. Society of New York, Vol. V Part I, p. 87.
t Cyclopedia of Michigan, Historical and Biographical,
Western Publishing and Engraving Company. Article on Rev.
Gabriel Richard, p. 321.
| American Catholic Quarterly, Philadelphia, 1893 Vol.
XVIII, p. 95 et seq.
On p. 7 frfettz for M ettez
On p. 10 except for excerpt
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